Thursday 31 May 2012

Good news on UK emissions

The UK has fallen well behind other European countries with attempts to cut greenhouse gas emissions from energy consumption despite topping the table until 1999, according to a new report from the Office of National Statistics.

The new analysis shows the UK has slumped from heading the European Union of 27 nations to now being in 23rd position.

And the UK is also fast falling behind other EU countries with its share of renewable energy.

Sounds like good news to me. Get rid of feed-in tariffs for wind and solar and that alone may help us climb to the bottom of the table.

Can I come in?

During my recent hospital stay, I was in a ward with three other men, two of them quite elderly and one of those obviously suffering from dementia. Let us call one of the elderly men Stan and the other, the one with dementia, we'll call Hector.

Stan was in the bathroom/toilet having a wash when Hector suddenly decided he needed the bathroom too. He shuffled across the ward and tugged hard at the bathroom door, in spite of being told the place was occupied. Anyway, Hector managed to yank the door open.

"Can I come in?" Hector asked, but without waiting for a reply, or even pausing at the door, he entered the bathroom.

Hector, as we soon found out, had gone in for a shit, which he proceeded to do, ignoring Stan who soon left the bathroom in some confusion, still towelling himself dry. A little while later Hector blithely shuffled out leaving the usual mess to be cleaned up before the bathroom was fit to use again.

No doubt we may look at an incident in a number of ways, but the one that struck me most forcibly was Hector's total lack of embarrassment. He paid no attention to Stan as he shuffled out of the bathroom. No apology, not even a glance - all due to dementia .

Obviously Stan barely existed for Hector, even though I'm sure the pre-dementia Hector would have been absolutely mortified at his own behaviour.

Before seeing this, I may well have assumed that social embarrassments of this kind are quite basic to our nature and not easily eradicated, even by dementia, but clearly this isn't so. Embarrassment is just another social acquisition and dementia sufferers tend to lose it.

As do many politicians. In fact it seems to be part of a political nature, this lack of embarrassment about shitting all over the place. A missing constraint to anti-social behaviour. At least Hector probably had it a few years back.

Wednesday 30 May 2012

Wind power

Wind power - supplying 0.2% of our needs at 14:35 this afternoon. 

Wind turbines are still being built too - what could possibly go wrong?

Olympic torch arrives

As you can see, the virtual Olympic Torch has reached my blog on its triumphal travels round the UK blogosphere. 

A proud day for me, although I've had a slight mishap with the flame. I'm sure nobody will notice when I pass it on. 

Wordplay - sustainable

It's a slippery, weasel word isn't it - sustainable? As you can see from Google's Ngram Viewer, It began sneaking into common parlance from about 1960, but didn't really take off dramatically until the mid-eighties. According to, this is what the word means.

  • able to be maintained at a certain rate or level:sustainable fusion reactions
  • conserving an ecological balance by avoiding depletion of natural resources:our fundamental commitment to sustainable development
  • able to be upheld or defended:sustainable definitions of good educational practice

Yet in most cases, what we want to know is not whether something is sustainable, but whether it is actually sustained. If I cut down trees in a forest but don't plant more trees, then the wood comes from a sustainable source, but not a sustained source. My felling policy on the other hand is not sustainable, although it might be if regrowth occurs naturally and my rate of felling is no greater than the rate of natural regrowth.

All very picky I know, but why are we so casual about these things even where they supposedly matter? 

Because sustainable is a political and marketing word I suppose - where sustainable ambiguity is the game.

Tuesday 29 May 2012


Mackworth Water Tower by Simon Johnson  

You may or may not have noticed, but I’ve been away from the keyboard and have not replied to comments or written any new posts. The posts since Friday have popped up automatically out of the queue I set up on Blogger.

I won’t go into the gory details, but I had an urgent hospital admission on Friday because my bladder has applied for early retirement - cheeky sod. It’s pretty sobering for a blogger to discover he’s full of piss.

Anyway, I’m back now and at least I’ll be able to write a few posts about the experience. 

The first is how easily the days slipped by even with nothing to do but read my Kindle and make some blogging notes. I expected to be bored but wasn't. Keen to get home and get on with life, but not bored.

I’ve only ever been to hospital as a visitor, apart from having my tonsils out at the age of four, which I barely remember. For some reason I associate that remote experience with the drawings of Mabel Lucie Attwell.

Anyway, on Friday I was admitted to the Derby Royal, a big and much extended hospital on the outskirts of Derby. I had a bed by a large window, which helped pass the time whenever Thackeray's writing palled. The days ought to have been long and dreary, but were not. Long yes, because we were woken as six in the morning by the bustle of staff changeover - but not dreary for some reason.

Idle days didn’t drag, at least not for me. They were punctuated with clockwork routines such as meals, hot drinks, endless tests of blood pressure, heart rate, weighing, medication and the taking of blood samples. Alternating bouts of bustle and quiet – that’s what it was like. I quickly became used to it.

As I lay there or sat by my window (my window?) I could see Mackworth water tower in the distance. The old water tower is a local landmark I’ve barely seen for over fifty years. It’s the area where I grew up - felt strange to gaze at it again, childhood long gone, age catching up with me rather more quickly than I’d hoped.

Ah well – life goes on. At least there seems to be nothing malignant in there, chewing away at whatever time I have left. Quite a major relief really and I only had to gaze round the ward to see many who were not nearly so well off as me.

Monday 28 May 2012

North Korea – warning or weird?

North Korea seems to fascinate and appall in its grotesque parody of a country which starves its own people as an instrument of repression. According to its own official view, North Korea is both democratic and socialist. Okay we know all about totalitarian regimes claiming to be democratic, but how should we view it - as an outlier or a warning?

In spite of its hopelessly ramshackle economy and the almost unbelievable evil with which it conducts itself, North Korea is still with us. It is said that China could pull the plug and initiate regime change if it chose to do so, but it doesn’t.

North Korea has missile technology and an unknown level of nuclear technology. It has cars on the streets, a TV network, computers and mobile phones. All strictly limited and controlled of course, but North Korea is still a modern country in many senses - however vile.

So does North Korea belong in the past? Will any other country anywhere in the world evolve into another North Korea? Or is it just an outlier, a weird one-off that nobody in their right mind would copy?

Nobody in their right mind?

Okay, this is all a bit far-fetched, but is the world trending away from or towards North Korea? How far will regimentation go? Think Olympics as a stage-setter, then think EU, UN, global governance, global regulations or almost any other political trend.

Now let's forget for a moment how appalling North Korea is and recall how facile our lot are. Imagine a conversation somewhere in the bowels of the EU or UN.

"What do you think of North Korea?"
"Bloody appalling - what else can one say?"
"Yet if they were less vicious towards their own people - what then?"
"You mean if we could do business with them?"
"Different kettle of fish entirely old boy."

I think this is where the appalled fascination lies. George Orwell wasn't fantasizing - these things can happen and North Korea shows just how bad it can become. I don't actually think this is where we are headed, but quite apart from the humanitarian angle, which is dreadful enough, I'd rather not have North Korea as a constant reminder of what is possible.

Sunday 27 May 2012

Where does it go?

I cut the lawn today as it was looking a little shaggy. I don't use a grass box, so the cut grass just blows back onto the lawn and my feet. Have you ever noticed how quickly cut grass disappears off a lawn? It just seems to shrivel up and vanish well before the next cut.

I wonder if it's high-speed biodegradable or it just blows next door? Maybe it's piling up in huge drifts against the fence. They haven't said anything though.

Friday 25 May 2012

Sustainable - again

We happened to be tootling down the M180 again yesterday and saw the same bunch of wind turbines I posted on a while back, none of which appeared to be rotating.

On closer inspection my better half noticed 1 rotating very slowly out of a total of 16 - so 93.7% not working.

This is called sustainable power generation. Coal, gas and nuclear which work 24/7 – they are not sustainable.

Got that? Good. We were well impressed yet again.

Your water footprint

Now carbon footprints are firmly established as policy-drivers, how about other imaginary footprints we may have to endure? Your water footprint is one the EU seems keen to make more of.

Our individual water footprint is the sum of the water footprints of all the goods and services we consume. According to scientists from the University of Twente in the Netherlands, the global average water footprint per consumer between 1996 and 2005 was 3800 l/day (1385 m³/year). The average figure for a German consumer was 3900 l/day (1426 m³/year) and for a Spanish consumer was 6700 l/day (2461 m³/year). An average Danish consumer had a footprint of 4500 l/day (1635 m³/year) while the figure in Poland was 3800 l/day (1405 m³/year).

What the study also revealed was that our pattern and volume of consumption has a direct impact on our water footprint. Someone who drinks a lot of coffee and regularly eats meat, for example, is likely to have a much higher water footprint than a vegetarian who drinks tap water.

So now we know – a water-drinking vegetarian is the ideal EU citizen. Or more likely the ideal child or grandchild if generationawake is anything to go by. Generation AWAKE seems to be one of those EU educational initiatives aimed at every aspect of daily domestic life, including water usage. For example:

Do you have to eat meat with every meal?
 It is a fact that eating less meat will reduce the environmental impact of your diet. But do you know the reasons why? Livestock rearing has an impact on valuable natural habitats and puts biodiversity and sustainable land use under pressure.

How clean is your towel?
 A towel is for drying you once you are clean, so it gets wet, not dirty. That means you can use towels several times before they go in the laundry basket.

Why not have a shower instead of a bath?
 We need to get used to the fact that water is a limited resource.

Water probably is wasted in the UK, but only because many properties are still unmetered and the underground pipes are leaky. Water meters won’t sort out the leaky pipes, but for water policy, wasn’t there such as thing as subsidiarity – that almost forgotten EU lie?

The principle of subsidiarity is defined in Article 5 of the Treaty on European Union. It ensures that decisions are taken as closely as possible to the citizen and that constant checks are made to verify that action at Union level is justified in light of the possibilities available at national, regional or local level. Specifically, it is the principle whereby the Union does not take action (except in the areas that fall within its exclusive competence), unless it is more effective than action taken at national, regional or local level.

As the UK is an island state, water policy is a glaringly obviously candidate for purely national policy-making, yet as well as our water footprint, we also have the EU Water Framework Directive.

The supply of water is a practical matter based on well-established technology, but the notion of a water footprint is of course political. However it sits on a more practical base than carbon footprints because less dodgy science is involved and there is less necessity for outright fraud to sustain the argument.

It just needs a touch of exaggeration and some slippery assumptions. I think we'll get plenty of those.

Thursday 24 May 2012

Zero carbon des res

This is the view from the entrance to our World War II air-raid shelter. I don't go down there very often, even though it's 100% carbon neutral. 

When we cleaned it out after the house move, among the junk we found some empty 25 litre plastic water containers and a commode. 

Makes you think doesn't it?

Maybe there's a short story in there somewhere.

The US energy boom

purple scorpion has come up with an excellent point. As well as tackling negative propaganda about shale gas, we should also remind ourselves what good news shale gas and unconventional oil resources could be. 

For example, The New Nostradamus has this post on a report that US unconventional oil reserves are as large as the world's entire proven oil reserves. 

The theme is picked up by BusinessFeatures with a piece on the boom in US shale gas and oil production.

 A boom in North American shale gas production in the past five years has resulted in sharp falls in domestic power and gas prices there and could turn North America from a gas importer into a large exporter, and a similar development is seen as under way in the oil sector.

“What happened in gas is happening in oil as we speak. The US will become a net exporter of oil and gas in the next decade and the global repercussions of this are unbelievable,” Daniel Jaeggi, the co-founder and head of global trading of Geneva-based commodities trading house Mercuria, said during the Reuters Global Energy and Environment Summit.

“It fundamentally modifies the geopolitical landscape, and this is bullish US,” he said.

“They will have the cheapest power, gas and oil and that could lead to an industrial revival as its industry becomes globally competitive again because of cheap energy,” he added.

Shale gas and unconventional oil reserves are potential game-changers. We could all benefit, especially our children and grandchildren.

Ignore the energy fascists - this is seriously good news.

Wednesday 23 May 2012

Cameron's face

Hmm - maybe the previous post fails to address the real basics of political life. 

Faces may be important too. 

Is Cameron a smoothie-chops posh boy while Miliband isn't?

Cameron's verbal behaviour

In some ways, this post is a continuation of the previous post on taking sides, especially in politics. David Cameron, our beleaguered Prime Minister is a case in point. Only his most loyal supporters seem willing to give much credence to what he says and the promises he appears to make.

For the sake of argument, let's divide verbal behaviour into two types - tactical and altruistic. Let's do this simply because it is a common way of judging the verbal behaviour of significant people we don't know personally.

Tactical verbal behaviour is speaking (or writing) for effect while altruistic verbal behaviour is speaking (or writing) with the hope of making the world a very slightly better place. The two are not mutually exclusive of course. One may speak altruistically as a tactic and one may speak tactically for altruistic reasons. It's a murky pond with two extremes. There are other words we could use too, if we accept a certain looseness of association.

Tactical   -  Covert   -  Manipulative
Altruistic  -  Overt    -  Cooperative

David Cameron's public verbal behaviour is strongly tactical, as is the public verbal behaviour of most politicians. The problem he faces is that this personal trait is glaringly obvious even to his potential supporters. It must have been obvious to friends and political colleagues before he became Conservative party leader, yet for some reason it wasn't seen as a major defect in the way he presents himself.

It should have been.

Maybe he succeeded because of Tony Blair's enormous political success as a tactical speaker, but that presupposed a public who had not wised up to Blair's approach. Surely a naive assumption.

In addition, Blair was gifted at sounding altruistic for covert tactical reasons. It may have been transparent to many, but it worked well enough to win three elections with an inept rabble at his back.

Similarly, if less effectively, Ed Miliband, whatever his defects, tends to give hints of altruism in his public verbal behaviour - and possibly his body-language too. He seems to care. It may not be genuine or particularly convincing and he suffers from his association with glaringly obvious tacticians such as Ed Balls, but it's there.

This may not be the conventional view, yet in terms of his public verbal behaviour, Ed Milliband may turn out to have the edge on David Cameron, horrifying though that prospect may be to those of us who hope for some kind of political shakeup.

Tuesday 22 May 2012

Taking sides

I often browse blogs I wouldn’t normally visit, flitting in a dilettantish way from link to link as I’m sure we all do from time to time. One thing that strikes me quite forcibly is how prone we are to take sides on all kinds of issues, very much as football supporters do.

In fact I can’t help thinking it’s the same thing – support a football club, vote for a political party, claim to understand the climate or economy, wave the flag, argue for this or argue for that. Taking sides seems to be an aspect of social cohesion in that we can't have one without the other.

So the inevitable question arises, what if my views are no more that taking sides? Accidents which could have gone some other way if I'd been the son of a stockbroker or a miner. Or even a minor for that matter. How would I set about testing myself by spitting out the silver spoon or hawking up the coal dust? How would I reassure myself that I’m a truth-seeker rather than just another cheer-leader for my side?

Well I’m pretty sure the short answer is that I can’t. If I cheer for one side or another then there’s a reason for it, which may revolve around analytical dedication, but equally likely may not. I may just be a game-player, a side-taker. For one thing, it's usually easier. The only real essential is to know who is playing and who to support. The question of why need not be an issue.

There is only one test I can think of and that is detachment. I don't think I’m a keen supporter in the footballing sense because I don’t care deeply about either side. I’m not greatly interested in persuading anybody about anything, mostly because I accept the absolute necessity of competing points of view. I also like to feel I'm at least trying to be a detached observer, which may be a semi-detached illusion but at least it's worth a go.

Because social cohesion must have its asymmetric tensions where people not only disagree on who best to applaud, but are led to applaud neither and explore other possibilities instead. Otherwise there is no movement and the search for truth falters or stalls altogether. It is here that I see the main issue with politics – a hugely ironic lack of diversity. Politics is all about taking sides.

We simply don't do political detachment.

As a result, political commentary tends to be dull cheer-leading unless delivered with wit and verve. It is the wit and verve, the memorable phrase and the one-liner that carry the day in political commentary and it's pretty rare. Without a dash of wit, politics is mostly a matter of preaching to the converted. The rest of us, though we may have something important to offer, don't seem to count.

Monday 21 May 2012

Government stalling says WWF

Ever-reliable source of green merriment, ClickGreen, has a story on how former panda-botherers WWF are now into big politics. 

“The call is now coming from across the party, from inside government and from business to stop the Treasury blocking green growth and get on with policies that our economic competitors have been doing for years.

“Far from putting British companies out of business, environmental policies may well be the saving of them. Leading businesses are already crying out for measures such as mandatory carbon reporting and policy certainty for the development of the renewable energy sector.” 

I hear their pain. How they manage without mandatory carbon reporting I'll never know. 


Édouard ManetNana, 1877
From Wikipedia

I recently finished Emil Zola's Nana, recommended by fellow blogger Macheath. To begin with, it's a first rate read, an extraordinary, gripping novel of decadence and decay in nineteenth century Paris.

Lets get the criticism out of the way though. Zola, I have since discovered, was criticized for not creating memorable characters, his novels being driven more by plot than vivid personalities. I agree with this view, but it is offset by his powerful ability to evoke atmosphere, social settings, crowds and the overriding role of situation and circumstance.

Zola's characters tend to be two-dimensional flotsam on the great river of life, but that is his intention, his view of how things really are. It certainly works for Nana.

The anti-heroine, Nana, is an actress and courtesan made good. A beauty from the gutter who fascinates and ruins high-society men without a qualm. Yet in many ways she is difficult to dislike, partly because she too is a creature of circumstance. She controls her lovers absolutely, yet is also moulded by their sexual needs. She seems to be what they most desire in a woman, but without their wealth, social standing and the prevailing decadence of the times she would be nothing - no more than a common prostitute.

One quote seems to express Zola's view on how rigorous moral standards may have to be if the lesson of his novel is to be learned.

Mme Hugon, though weary and absent-minded, had caught some phrases of the conversation, and she now intervened and summed up in her tolerant way by remarking to the Marquis de Chouard, who had just then bowed to her: "These ladies are too severe. Existence is so bitter for every one of us! Ought we not forgive others much, my friend, if we wish to merit forgiveness ourselves?"

For some seconds the marquis appeared embarrassed, for he was afraid of allusions. But the good lady wore so sad a smile that he recovered almost at once and remarked: "No, there is no forgiveness for certain faults. It is by reason of this kind of accommodating spirit that a society sinks into the abyss of ruin."

The novel ends with Nana's lovers either ruined or dead. Nana herself dies from smallpox which turns her into a suppurating mess of putrefaction lying all alone in a hotel bedroom.

The comparison with Zola's contemporaries is a stark one. Wilkie Collins could never have written or published anything so explicit or hammered home his moral lessons with such cool ferocity. Today of course we'd scarcely rate it as explicit, but oddly enough Zola's more restrained frankness works rather well. His novel brings home the creeping destructive horrors of decadence and moral decline and for me at any rate, the message sticks and sticks well.

Sunday 20 May 2012

ComRes poll

According to the latest ComRes voting intention poll, 41% of those polled would vote for this man to be UK Prime Minister.

Not that the other mainstream alternatives are any better, but this kind of thing does lead one to wonder about the sanity qualification for voters. Does it still apply?


We had some WWF people in green jackets knock on the door the other day. I just said "no" and politely waved them away as I always do to cold-callers trying to either sell me something or share their lack of wisdom.

As I gazed at them out of the window scurrying from house to house, I wasted a few not particularly precious moments of my life wondering what on earth goes off in their heads. Or is that "what on Earth"?

Three of them - all young and a touch scruffy but doing their best no doubt. Maybe they were just after our money rather than the future of our grandchildren. Even so, should I throw my limited tolerance out of the window and refer to them as greenshirts? Many of them would certainly refer to me as a "denier". Or worse.

Yet it isn't a good idea to get too upset even by the antics of WWF because nonsense and peddlers of nonsense aren't going away any time soon. Even so it isn't easy to even watch the video above, let alone give the makers of it some rudimentary moral credence. These are children they are using for heaven's sake.

Mind you, those children have parents don't they?

Saturday 19 May 2012

No chance

The EU is at a crossroads. The euro has been embroiled in such turmoil and uncertainty that your government is impelled by the sheer pressure of these extraordinary events to reassess our relationship with our European colleagues. 

Some have indeed asked for a referendum on our membership of the EU and although I hear what you say, the time is not right for the divisive forces a referendum would inevitably unleash, especially now in these difficult and delicate times. A referendum is inappropriate, dangerous even.

Yet your government must act responsibly at all times and at least admit what is clear for all to see. The EU has been a monumental balls up and it's time to go. With that in mind....

Childhood revisited

Grandson stayed over as usual this Friday. Come Saturday morning at seven o'clock, when this post pops up, he'll be up too, buzzing around in his pyjamas while we grope our way towards reality. Our internal clocks are at least an hour or two behind his.

As usual his chirpy antics will make me smile and for a moment or two while I make the morning tea, I'll wonder why it's so uplifting to watch the little chap enjoying himself on a sunny morning. Maybe it won't be be sunny, but he'll be just as chirpy if it's pouring with rain.

It's obvious enough I know, but what exactly is so pleasing about having youngsters around again?

A while back I decided that at least in my case it may be something to do with being wafted back to my own childhood. Back to those far off innocent days when I'd have been exactly like grandson is now. Minus a few dozen toys maybe, but the flavour, the nuances of my own past do come back to life during these moments.

Yet there are many other times when I feel we are letting them down so badly - his generation. We could and should have done so much more. So much less too. But maybe these cynical thoughts are best left on the back burner - at least for now.

Friday 18 May 2012

Rabbit wings?

I don't usually find cookery books puzzling, but this recipe had me scratching my head. Did rabbits have wings a mere two centuries ago? Sounds tasty enough anyway.

To dress Rabbets to look like Moor-Game

Take a young rabbet, when it is cased cut off the wings and the head; leave to neck of your rabbet as long as you can; when you case it you must leave on the feet, pull off the skin, leave on the claws, so double your rabbet and skewer it like a fowl; put a skewer at the bottom through the legs and neck, and tie it with a string, it will prevent it flying open; when you dish it up make the same sauce as you would for partridges. Three are enough for one dish.
English Housewifery by Elizabeth Moxon, thirteenth edition - 1790.

Science - the death of a myth

There are a number of ways to view the idea of post-normal science, but to my mind, the most realistic is to accept that the traditional science myth is finally dying. The idea that scientists selflessly pursue their theories and resolutely reject them if they aren’t confirmed by experiment is finally crashing into reality. And about time too.

There is no scientific method. Scientists are opportunists - they go with whatever works just like anyone else. It has to be like this because what we class as science is so disparate, from quantum theory to biology to astronomy. There isn’t a single way of going about scientific discovery. It isn’t a tick-box activity, but a lateral thinking, creative activity. Successful scientists are creative people, not followers of some bureaucratic procedure called sound science.

Nobody knows in advance if a theory will deliver of not. If it does, then the theorist becomes an exemplar of the scientific method. If not it vanishes without trace, but usually only after a hard-fought rearguard action by its proponents. This is why non-scientists should not be diffident about wading in to condemn poor science.

But if scientific achievements can be judged only after the event and if there is no abstract way of ensuring success beforehand, then there exists no special way of weighing scientific promises either – scientists are no better off than anybody else in these matters, they only know more details. This means that the public can participate in the discussion without disturbing existing roads to success (there are no such roads).
P K Feyerabend – Against Method

Policy-based evidence
Many traditional scientists and many non-scientists with a traditional view of science find it difficult to accept the frequent use of corrupt, policy-based scientific evidence. This is where the science myth comes up hard against reality. Scientists can be as corruptible, vain, venal and dishonest as anyone else.
  • Futile climate change mitigation policies are still pursued at vast cost even though the scientific rationale fell apart years ago.
  • The health damage caused by passive smoking is firmly established on policy-based evidence. There never was any other kind.
  • Electric cars in the UK run on electricity almost entirely generated by gas, coal and nuclear, yet they are touted as planet-saving devices purely on the basis of policy-driven science.
  • Mass medication such as the recent statin proposal is wrong. Nothing to do with science or scientists – just wrong.
  • And so on.

 Time to move on
The decline of the scientific myth has been going on for a number of decades. Traditional myths of scientific integrity are going the way of all myths – eventually we open our eyes to the real world and the myth dies. As it should.

Maybe we shouldn’t be surprised. Maybe as realists we should be open to what has happened. The science myth is finished, but it was always an impossibly romantic view of what scientists really do, how they actually behave. Time to move on.

Scientists are not content with running their own playpens in accordance with what they regard as the rules of scientific method, they want to universalize the rules, they want them to become part of society at large and they use every means at their disposal – argument, propaganda, pressure tactics, intimidation, lobbying – to achieve their aims.
P K Feyerabend – Against Method

The future
One cannot foretell the course of social change, but my guess is that the science myth will continue to die and we will have to adapt to a fallible and sometimes corrupt scientific business. Maybe that’s also how we should learn to view all science – it’s just another business.

Yet we will still be left with something important. We will still have our history of world-changing scientific discovery and the occasional dismal failure, but we may learn to be more honest about the failures.

Possibly we will retain a technical outlook on the real world, which we may well refer to as scientific. So principles such as cause and effect will not die out – just the myth that scientists know which is which.

Thursday 17 May 2012

Women as objects

The Association for Psychological Science has a piece claiming that people see sexy pictures of women as objects not people.

Perfume ads, beer billboards, movie posters: everywhere you look, women’s sexualized bodies are on display. A new study published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, finds that both men and women see images of sexy women’s bodies as objects, while they see sexy-looking men as people. 

The research is based on a claimed similarity between the way we recognize sexy images of women and objects.

One way that psychologists have found to test whether something is seen as an object is by turning it upside down. Pictures of people present a recognition problem when they’re turned upside down, but pictures of objects don’t have that problem. So Bernard and his colleagues used a test where they presented pictures of men and women in sexualized poses, wearing underwear. Each participant watched the pictures appear one by one on a computer screen. Some of the pictures were right side up and some were upside down. After each picture, there was a second of black screen, then the participant was shown two images. They were supposed to choose the one that matched the one they had just seen. 

It's odd thing about psychology experiments - how often they seem to take certain cultural assumptions as given. To my mind, this kind of work is measuring what we could just as easily refer to as interest. The more interesting an image, the more quickly and accurately it is recognized even if a psychologist has turned it upside down. As to why the images may be interesting, well that is another issue, but I'm sure most non-psychologists have a pretty good idea.

But these particular psychologists have gone beyond interest. They claim that images of overtly sexy women are recognized in the same way that objects are recognized. The basis of this claim seems to be that inverted images of both are easier to recognize than inverted images of men, or women not overtly sexy.

Let us leave aside the question of how they selected the objects.

To my way of thinking, they still go too far - beyond the experimental observations and the basic idea that we recognize best those things in which we are most interested. Somehow the psychologists seem prepared to say that men and women fail to distinguish between inanimate objects and images of sexy women, although of course that isn't how it is expressed.

Obviously people do make the distinction, so how can psychologists say that the mode of recognition is the same? The answer to that question seems to lie in the test itself. The image inversion test defines a relationship between modes of recognition.

Going on to equate the way we recognize images of sexy women and objects - well that ought to be a weakness of the definition. Instead it is swallowed whole and as far as I can see the only reason is that it agrees with a cultural meme - women being treated as objects. Circular argument rooted in a definition - you see them a lot in psychology.

For me, cultural meme has invaded their thinking and a hidden definition has skewed their logic. What they are really highlighting is how extremely interested we are in (and incidentally familiar with) images of women in overtly sexual poses. But we knew that in the first place.

Wednesday 16 May 2012

Investing in faces


From ScienceDaily we learn

Our decisions to trust people with our money are based more on how they look then how they behave, according to new research from the University of Warwick. 

Actually that's not what the research concluded. It found two things.
  1. A strong (13 out of 15) bias towards a trustworthy appearance where there was no other information.
  2. A weak bias (6%) where there was additional information as to trustworthiness. 
No great surprise really. In fact a bias of 6% suggests to me that when it comes to investing, we do at least give priority to the information over the smile. Interestingly, the faces were computer-generated.

The team used a computer algorithm to create a set of 20 pairs of faces at opposing ends of the trustworthiness scale. This computer software modifies the apparent trustworthiness of faces by altering their features. The researchers were able to experimentally manipulate the unfakeable features (those related to shape of the face) that make a face look trustworthy or untrustworthy. These 40 faces were then used in a series of trust games with human participants. 

Where else could this go? Maybe politicians could have plastic surgery to enhance their facial trustworthiness.


Well surely they could have their most furtive features smoothed away?


So are they stuck with ingrained behavioural traits, the shifty eye and the nonsensical speech? Is it an impossible task?

I think it is. 

Tuesday 15 May 2012

Narrative girl

This is an eighteenth century porcelain saucer made by the Caughley factory round about 1775. The Caughley factory lay to the south of the river Severn near Brosely, about forty miles upstream from Worcester. The site was on a hill about a mile from the river and part of the Caughley estate. It was bought by Coalport early in the nineteenth century, then closed down.

Typically, the hand-painted pattern in cobalt blue is supposed to imitate Chinese porcelain of the same period. There is a pagoda on the left, a bridge, islands and a strange tree, all copied from Chinese designs.

However, there is an anomaly (see arrow) at the top left - a windmill which is clearly a post mill - not a feature of Chinese landscapes. The painter and designer of course would not have known that - and neither would the customers in all likelihood.

Who was the painter? Well we know women and girls painted porcelain at this time. It was light work and regarded as a respectable working-class occupation. For example, from documentary evidence, Mary Redgrave (born 1761) is known to have decorated porcelain over at Lowestoft on the Suffolk coast.

Of course the post mill was probably the pattern designer's idea, but is it the work of a woman or girl painter? Notice the simple circle at the top, supposed to represent the sun and the naive way a few birds are depicted as a kind of flattened letter m. Remember also that women of this period were quite likely to be adept at fine needlework, so the painting may not be the work of an adult.

Of course it's impossible to say who painted this saucer, but I prefer to think it was a girl who passed by a post mill on her daily walk to the porcelain factory. I like to think she wasn't just copying a designer's pattern, but was familiar with the mill herself. It would have been a landmark, maybe the mill where the local baker bought his flour

It's a narrative, if a little fanciful, but it fits what we know, although other narratives are obviously possible. Historical narratives tend to be like that. We can't test them by altering the past, all we can do is uncover more facts or prove links between previously disparate facts. I don't see that we can do much more as long as we build the narratives transparently and don't leave out known facts.

I'm not so sure this restriction is such a huge gulf between history and science that is sometimes claimed either. After all, climate scientists want us to accept a narrative that doesn't even fit the facts, such as the fact that it isn't warming as their theory requires.

So my saucer narrative may only be one of many possibilities, but I'll stick with it because it fits the known facts as well as anything else.

Monday 14 May 2012

Big Brother street lights?

It just goes on and on doesn't it? When should we fear this kind of thing?

The Faustian Olympics

Goldman’s dilemma. Bob Goldman, began asking elite athletes in the 1980s whether they would take a drug that guaranteed them a gold medal but would also kill them within five years. More than half of the athletes said yes. When he repeated the survey biannually for the next decade, the results were always the same. About half of the athletes were quite ready to take the bargain.

Back in 2009, the British Journal of Sports Medicine published a report where Goldman’s dilemma was tested on members of the Australian public.

Goldman's dilemma was tested by random telephone survey of 250 members of the Australian general public. Subjects were asked whether they would take the Faustian bargain of a drug that guaranteed sporting success but would result in their death in 5 years' time.

Only two of a sample of 250 reported they would take the bargain offered by the dilemma.

Conclusions: Athletes differ markedly from the general population in response to the dilemma. This raises significant practical and ethical dilemmas for athlete support personnel. The psychometry of the dilemma needs to be established more comprehensively for general and athlete populations.

Okay, athletes saying they would take the Faustian pact is not the same as actually taking it. Even so, it is an interesting admission by half the athletes questioned and for all we know the other half were not being honest.

Large-scale, state of the art drug testing is an essential part of the modern Olympics. We know that and seem to accept it, but why?

Considering the cost, the policing, the military hardware, disruption, corruption and the frankly demeaning circus atmosphere - what do we get from the Olympics? Add in the drugs issue and doesn’t it all begin to look a little tacky?

Sunday 13 May 2012

Bread and circuses

In my experience, I have observed that people are oftener quick than not to feel a human compassion for others in distress. Also, that they mostly see plain enough what's hard and cruel and unfair on them in the governing of the country which they help to keep going. But once ask them to get on from sitting down and grumbling about it, to rising up and setting it right, and what do you find them? As helpless as a flock of sheep - that's what you find them.
Wilkie Collins - Man and Wife

Do people in the UK actually like regulations? Do we prefer a highly regulated world as opposed to one where we have judge for ourselves, have to look after ourselves and our loved ones as best we can? A world where we stand or fall on the competence of our own actions?

I think the answer is a qualified yes. Many people are indeed comfortable with a highly-regulated world where in principle everything of any significance is either forbidden or compulsory and they have no say in political decisions.

How do I know? Because that's the trend and on the whole people aren't taking to the streets. The world is as it appears to be - endlessly restrictive regulations are either popular, or at least, not unpopular. You'd possibly never get folk to admit it, but that's not necessarily the point.

It may even be that many would be happy to do away with elections too. Again we pay attention to actual behaviour - and that is a declining propensity to vote. Add that to the widespread habit of voting exclusively for one of the big three parties plus the trivial policy differences between Dave, Nick and Ed and one is surely bound to conclude that radical change isn't popular either.

Democracy in the UK is fading away - possibly in part because many people don't actually want it. Maybe they would never admit it and may even deny it vociferously, but behaviour tells its own story and that is one of widespread indifference.

Bread and circuses? Well it certainly works - of course it does. Maybe the point of the industrial revolution was exactly that - to create enough bread and affordable circuses. As far as I can see it worked. It probably won't last, but it didn't last time around either.

Collins was right.

Saturday 12 May 2012

Plan B

From the ever-reliable ClickGreen we learn of a plan to combat climate change by squirting millions of tons of titanium dioxide into the stratosphere. The idea is that fine particles of titanium dioxide would reflect enough sunlight to mitigate the effects of climate change.

Dispersing fine light-scattering particles into the upper atmosphere could help to combat climate change, suggests a former UK government advisor and chemical engineer.

The technology concept developed in the UK suggests dispersing benign titanium dioxide particles as used in paint, inks and sunscreens into the stratosphere to deflect the sun’s rays.

“While it’s essential that we work to reduce carbon dioxide emissions now, it would be wise to have a well-researched emergency system in reserve as a Plan B,” said Davidson.


Is that really the best word - in the circumstances?

On being foolish

One of the most difficult aspects of life is our own foolishness. I don’t mean in some formulaic mea culpa aiming to find kudos in humble pie kind of way, but in the sense that society itself is foolish and it demands a certain amount of foolishness from us in return for supplying our needs. We often have to deliver our tithe of foolishness in order to get on with things we think aren't foolish.

What I mean by this is that we cannot live what we might describe as fully intelligent, rational and utterly self-determined lives. We can’t live as we might wish to live, do the work for which we are best suited among colleagues we would have chosen anyway if given the choice.

Life isn’t like that, it’s a constant stream of options where one option is probably better but choosing it is always a matter of guesswork or worse – social pressure. So we opt to do foolish things for which there is no reward such as aspects of our working life which we know perfectly well are a waste of time.

I don’t mean this in a nihilistic or defeatist sense either, although I know it sounds that way. I’m trying to express the obvious fact that foolishness is part of almost any complex society simply because foolish options are always there in their millions and inevitably we sometimes take the foolish option. 

We do it on all scales too – from the personal to the international. The EU was a foolish option which once taken presented us with numerous other foolish options such as the euro which we didn’t swallow and the Lisbon treaty which we did. The collective UK version of we I mean, because I’m sure you weren’t that foolish and neither was I. But I didn't take to the streets. Did you? 

Often we do nothing to avoid doing something foolish even though doing nothing might well be the foolish option. So it isn’t easy and it isn’t possible to opt out, because opting out may well be foolish too.

Living for the moment is foolish, as is not living for the moment. It’s impossible really, but there is a way to ameliorate this tangle of foolishness. Simplify wherever possible is generally a good policy for national governments, a means to trim the damage that foolishness causes.

But for a senior civil servant to support a simplifying policy – that would be foolish wouldn’t it? So in the end, foolish is in the design and it would be foolish to deny how foolish we can be in not tackling our own foolishness.

Friday 11 May 2012

Mistie speech

I've just started a book recommended by Rogerh - John Read's "The Alchemist in Life Literature and Art". I haven't finished it yet, but I just had to post this delicious quote. As you read it, please remember that it's about alchemists and not climate scientists. I don't want anyone mixing them up.

The alchemical adepts treated their esoteric doctrines and practical operations as weighty and sacred secrets, to be maintained as a closed body of knowledge. Their "noble practise" was thus "to vaile their secrets with mistie speech," lest the clodhopper might turn from his plough and cultivate the more alluring soil of the Sages.

The literature of alchemy, of which enormous accumulations have been preserved both in printed books and manuscripts, therefore abounds in cryptic expressions, often to the point of unintelligibility and incoherence. The alchemists delighted also in allegory and in symbolic representations of their doctrines and ideas. In such ways they made great play with a limited stock of ideas, upon which they rang an unending series of trivial changes, both in their expressions and their imagery.

Does nothing change?

Thursday 10 May 2012

Fun with "fun"

Using Google's Ngram Viewer for the word fun gives an interesting graph.

Firstly we note a huge peak round about the time of the Spanish Armada. No surprises there as this is a search on English words. At this time fun could mean cheat, hoax or make a fool of - all very appropriate.

Then apart from a small peak of fun when King Charles I lost his head and another when King Charles II was crowned, the major feature is a huge peak of fun which seems to coincide roughly with the early days of the Industrial Revolution in the second half of the eighteenth century.

However, once it became clear that factories were one of the main consequences and the old ways were now no more than a bucolic fantasy, the fun seems to have rather seeped away, or at least trickled out of our literature. 

Or maybe it was income tax, steam engines, Napoleon and hints of a recognizably modern world looming large on the far horizon.

Carrot and stick

Guest post from pearshaped - a response to the atheists dilemma

In my view, one area religions tend to both struggle and excel in, is that of morality. I think of morals as barriers. Over time some barriers we build higher, some get eroded, others wiped out and somewhere fresh ones are built. They just tell others not to cross them out of respect for an individual or group. A typical religious person scared by a big threat and following a set of morals in an attempt to catch a carrot on a stick has an undeniable advantage over a nonbeliever.

But over a long enough time frame the moral landscape undergoes major changes. Such as, acceptance of slavery turns to outright disgust, or more relevantly stoning people to death becomes barbaric, and inevitably religion gets left behind as a snapshot of what morality once was. Frozen. 

A pretty major flaw and quite possibly one of the major reasons people in Britain seem to be turning their backs on religion in ever greater numbers. The last report I read claimed the non religious are now in the majority here (just). Although on closer inspection people still believe in God and possibly Jesus but reject organised religions especially the barbaric Old Testament bits that don’t fit in with modern life. Cherry picking, but I think these people can absolutely be more moral than both atheists and those Christians still clinging to the bible as literal truth.

But anyway, what then of our rulers, those who wish to control and exploit Europe? How could those who aspire to be Europe’s ruling class exploit the masses of today? Surely nothing so simple would work on today’s multicultural societies with firmly established religions?

Could they exploit any myths around the time they started their covert assault? Where to find a big enough and terrible threat comparable with eternal suffering? What carrot on a stick could be used to tempt instead of eternal life?

How can modern layers of complexity be used to control morality ethics, lifestyle law and thereafter be used to generate an oasis of wealth for the ruling class?

If truth runs behind deception, how best to continually shift the deception?

It was always going be science.

Wednesday 9 May 2012

Going outside

This morning at 8:04

We'd decided on a short walk today, but the Met Office forecast was poor. However I took the precaution of employing another technique for checking the weather called "going outside". It's not peer-reviewed, but sometimes worth a go. We finished our walk by about 2pm, when a bit of drizzly rain started.

This morning at 8:05

Okay, so the rain arrived much later than forecast, not a big deal really. But here's a few little tips for the Met Office 

Maybe thirty year climate projections are a little beyond your capabilities.
Maybe it isn't the fact that you have a titchy little £30 million computer.
Maybe it's you. 

Seen a good film lately?

No? Neither have I.

In my view films have never quite worked. The medium doesn’t really deliver - which is why so many of us still read books and now blogs. At times a film seems to offer some kind of promise, but usually it fades into pap. Intense, loud, emotional, lavish, action-packed - but still pap. 

With few exceptions, once you’ve seen a few films then you’ve seen all there is to be seen. There are only a limited number of plots and guess what? You've seen them all.

But take a look at this:-

The room was empty, and under the flare of the gas a solitary chamber pot stood forgotten among a heap of petticoats trailing on the floor. This room afforded him his ultimate impression. Upstairs on the fourth floor he was well-nigh suffocated. All the scents, all the blasts of heat, had found their goal there. The yellow ceiling looked as if it had been baked, and a lamp burned among fumes of russet-coloured fog.

For some seconds he leaned upon the iron balustrade which felt warm and damp and well-nigh human to the touch. And he shut his eyes and drew a long breath and drank in the sexual atmosphere of the place. Hitherto he had been utterly ignorant of it, but now it beat full in his face.
Emile Zola - Nana - published 1879
(and many thanks to Macheath for suggesting it to me as a good read.)

Writing such as this may present images to the reader, but they are to a significant degree the reader's images and not exclusively Zola's. Zola's pen creates the sordid atmosphere of nineteenth century Parisian decadence - an atmosphere you could cut with a knife - but it is partly the reader's atmosphere too.

With films, this depth of personal involvement is not nearly so significant. The image requires much less input from the audience - the images are just there. Supposedly this is where the film-maker's art lies, but visual cues for a mass market are hardly likely to be subtle.

Rationalized division of labour takes all the sense out of his work. Machines relieve him, not merely of drudgery, but of the possibility of performing any creative or spontaneous act whatsoever. And this is now true of his leisure as well as his labour; he has almost ceased even to try to divert himself, but sits and suffers a standardized entertainment to trickle over his passive consciousness.
Aldous Huxley - Do What You Will - published 1929

Films are rarely thought-provoking either, because we've seen the plot before and in any case, they are almost always too short to develop a plot of any complexity.

As for characters - when you've seen a film star in one performance, then you've usually seen their whole gamut of emotions from A to B as Dorothy Parker said about Katharine Hepburn. The same trademark expressions, the wry smile, raised eyebrow, cynical scowl or whatever - doesn't matter which character they are playing. 

This is perhaps why Shakespeare is still enjoyed four centuries on while Spielberg will fade away. No shortage of verbal cues in Shakespeare and somehow I think there is a real difference here between stage and screen too.

I know I’ve pushed this rather too hard, in order to make a point, but on the whole I think there is a point to be made. Film doesn't make it as an artistic medium and because of the nature of the beast things will never change.

Too few plots, not enough time to develop the plot, too little involvement from the audience, too many well-known faces and somehow the moving image makes the limitations all too obvious.

Tuesday 8 May 2012

Sheep fart collecting

From the Calgary Herald comes exciting news that New Zealand scientists are collecting sheep farts. The question of disposal springs to mind, but as the world is not actually warming, perhaps it isn't a huge problem. 

As for our boffins - well we can't very well put them in boxes to measure their output can we? 

PALMERSTON NORTH, NEW ZEALAND -- Scientists have long accepted that gas from farm animals is a major factor in climate change, but how do you stop cattle and sheep from doing what comes naturally?

That’s the question consuming researchers in New Zealand who hope that by measuring every belch and bleat of their sheepish subjects they can come up with a solution.

Researcher Peter Janssen says the project, in which the animals are kept in perspex — clear acrylic resin — boxes so that their emissions can be measured, has the potential to make a real difference in the fight against global warming.

The political wilderness

I recently added a comment over at James Higham’s blog referring to Kingsley Amis and his book “Stanley And The Women”. One of the themes of Amis’ novel was the tactic of creating a social wilderness (Amis didn't call it that) - placing certain issues off-limits and being conspicuously offended if these limits are not respected. Some people seem prepared to raise the social stakes without limit by flatly refusing to explore certain issues, however worthy of exploration they may be.

 Amis saw the use of this tactic as predominantly female, but by far the most striking example I ever came across was male. However, I think the wilderness tactic applies as much to institutions as to people.

The political wilderness is off-limits to mainstream political groupings and institutions such as the BBC. Sometimes it seems to be some kind of hinterland where one may acknowledge the existence of a political wilderness but can’t go there. The boundaries are not always clear, but failure to engage is more and more overt and even aggressive if attempts are made to visit the wilderness in polite society.

A  political wilderness is very useful for setting boundaries, areas of discourse where demons lurk and smart people lie in wait, ready to twist the world into strange, unnatural shapes.

Even more significantly, the political wilderness is where myths and lies may be used by the faithful as tools of damage limitation. Those who explore the wilderness may be legitimately misled, abused and even threatened.

The wilderness lies behind boundaries built from interlocking webs of self-interest, special pleading and discreet corruption. This is what bloggers and commenters threaten with their endless exploration of these delicate places.

The role of the BBC.
Capital punishment.
Academic integrity.
The competence of the NHS.
Official corruption.
Electoral fraud.

The list is huge. The wilderness doesn’t so much hide issues, as warn off the timid, the lazy and the hysterically conventional. It sits beyond the limits of quiet lives. Wilderness explorers offer no comforts and are not satisfied with lies.

Monday 7 May 2012

Down the toilet

Anthony Watts at Watts Up With That? has put up a post titled :-

In one sense this is just another story about the scientifically inept CRU, yet in another it is much more. This is UK academic integrity flushing itself down the toilet and the CRU is far from being the only institution pulling the handle.

The UK establishment doesn't even have the wit to be embarrassed.